The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.
Ron McCormick, the senior director of local and sustainable sourcing for Walmart, told me that about three years ago he came upon pictures from the 1920s of thriving apple orchards in Rogers, Arkansas, eight miles from the company’s headquarters. Apples were once shipped from northwest Arkansas by railroad to St. Louis and Chicago. After Washington state and California took over the apple market, hardly any orchards remained. Cabbage, greens, and melons were also once staples of the local farming economy. But for decades, Arkansas’s cash crops have been tomatoes and grapes. A new initiative could diversify crops and give consumers fresher produce.
As with most Walmart programs, the clear impetus is to claim a share of consumer spending: first for organics, now for locally grown food. But buying local food is often harder than buying organic. The obstacles for both small farm and big store are many: how much a relatively small farmer can grow and how reliably, given short growing seasons; how to charge a competitive price when the farmer’s expenses are so much higher than those of industrial farms; and how to get produce from farm to warehouse.
Walmart knows all this, and knows that various nonprofit agricultural and university networks are trying to solve the same problems. In considering how to build on existing programs (and investments), Walmart talked with the local branch of the Environmental Defense Fund, which opened near the company’s Arkansas headquarters when Walmart started to look serious about green efforts, and with the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas. The center (of which the Walmart Foundation is a chief funder) is part of a national partnership called Agile Agriculture, which includes universities such as Drake and the University of New Hampshire and nonprofits like the American Farmland Trust.* To get more locally grown produce into grocery stores and restaurants, the partnership is centralizing and streamlining distribution for farms with limited growing seasons, limited production, and limited transportation resources.
Walmart says it wants to revive local economies and communities that lost out when agriculture became centralized in large states. (The heirloom varieties beloved by foodies lost out at the same time, but so far they’re not a focus of Walmart’s program.) This would be something like bringing the once-flourishing silk and wool trades back to my hometown of Rockville, Connecticut. It’s not something you expect from Walmart, which is better known for destroying local economies than for rebuilding them.